A changing of the guard for Elector Under the Oliver Smith Will

By BRIAN STEELE

Staff Writer

Published: 11-06-2021 7:03 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Every time that David Murphy faced a challenge to his tenure as Elector Under the Oliver Smith Will, his opponent received nine votes or less. That is, until Mary “Mimi” Odgers unseated Murphy in Tuesday’s city election with 3,278 votes to Murphy’s 2,526.

Odgers, a newcomer to elected office, won 57% of the vote to Murphy’s 43%. The two candidates tied 233-233 in Ward 2A and Murphy won Wards 6A and 7A, while Odgers picked up the win in all 11 remaining precincts.

Murphy took the seat with 56% of the vote in a 2001 race against John Lind, according to the city clerk’s office. Odgers’ win was the fourth time that Murphy had been challenged for the seat; in previous races, Murphy’s opponent had received either nine votes or two.

Voter turnout on Tuesday was about 40%. The unofficial results suggest that more than 2,700 voters chose someone other than the two candidates for Smith Elector or did not vote in that race at all.

‘What is this position?’

The Smith elector is Northampton’s representative to a private nonprofit organization called Smith Charities, which was established in the 1845 will of wealthy Hatfield resident Oliver Smith. Voters in Hatfield, Amherst, Deerfield, Greenfield, Hadley, Whately and Williamsburg also choose a Smith elector.

Smith Charities administers up to 12 mortgages and uses the interest on its $3.5 million portfolio to give gifts to new brides, widows with children, nursing students, and trade students and apprentices in local communities. The organization holds no public meetings and does not report to any city department.

Smith Charities also donates to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School every year. Murphy, the Smith Charities president, said they have given away between $9-$10 million in 172 years.

“I’ve always been interested in that position,” Odgers said on Thursday. “Every election, I would see that David Murphy was running unopposed, and I’d say, ‘What is this position?’ ... I believe in a healthy democracy, and having more than one candidate.”

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Odgers works in the Office of Student Affairs at Amherst College. She successfully lobbied against the Glendale Road landfill expansion in 2009, served on the city’s solid waste task force and was campaign manager for Michael Bardsley’s second mayoral run in 2011, a race that Mayor David Narkewicz won.

“I did make a reputation at that time, that I was hoping to work with people. I didn’t want it to be an antagonistic thing,” Odgers said. “I was hoping to find common ground, and I think that came through.”

While acknowledging that Smith Charities is governed by the terms of Oliver Smith’s will, she said she will look for ways to “tweak the requirements” for beneficiaries — such as the rule that nursing students must apply before their 21st birthday — and conduct outreach to find people who qualify and let them know about the gifts.

“The charity gives out very few of its available funds to people,” Odgers said. “The numbers are pretty low. … Those small monetary gifts make a big difference in regular people’s lives.”

She said she also wants to increase transparency in the organization’s work, like publicly sharing the stories of people who benefit from the gifts.

‘Bottom of the pile’

On Thursday, Murphy said that Smith Charities holds an annual meeting to choose two trustees and a president from among the electors in each community. Those three people meet regularly to administer the mortgages while every other elector waits their turn to become a trustee or president.

Removing Murphy from the position while he serves as president will put Northampton “at the bottom of the pile” in the trustee rotation, he said.

“Ms. Odgers will need to win reelection three more times before she can (become a trustee and) go to more than one meeting a year,” Murphy said. “Her ability to do anything is zero” until then.

Even though Odgers will be sworn in on Jan. 3, Murphy said that her term at Smith Charities will not start until May due to the organization’s rules.

In a separate race on Tuesday’s ballot, Murphy lost his bid for an at-large City Council seat to Jamila Gore and Marissa Elkins. Ward 1 City Councilor Michael Quinlan also lost the at-large race, placing third behind Elkins by 20 votes.

“I’m disappointed in such a poor voter turnout in a municipal election with a mayor’s race,” Murphy said. “Sixty percent sat it out. … That makes it very hard for anyone who is not a member of the only party in town.”

A former Ward 5 city councilor, Murphy has served as Smith Elector and councilor simultaneously in the past due to a Massachusetts Attorney General’s opinion that found his Smith Charities position did not present a conflict of interest because the organization is not involved in city business.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.]]>